MADRID — In bullfighting, the dying animal is put out of its suffering with a quick dagger blow by the puntillero. Now, after years of decline, the whole industry may be about to receive its own coup de grâce — at the hands of the coronavirus.
The pandemic struck Spain in March, just as the bullfighting season was about to get underway. A strict lockdown was introduced for the next three months, meaning the cancellation of all corridas, including major fiestas such as Seville’s Feria de Abril and San Isidro in Madrid.
Although in recent weeks the country has returned to a normality of sorts, with businesses, theaters and cinemas reopening and top-tier football resuming, bullfighting is still in limbo.
“This is a disaster of unprecedented dimensions, we’ve not seen a situation like this one in the history of bullfighting,” said Antonio Lorca, who covers los toros for El País newspaper. “There’s even a risk it will disappear altogether.”
Technically, bullfights are now allowed again, although regional governments must impose safety restrictions, such as limiting the number of people allowed to attend and ensuring there is social distancing between them. This and the uncertainty that reigned throughout the spring has meant that the vast majority of the summer’s events have been canceled.
This has an economic impact for event organizers, bull breeders and, of course, bullfighters, many of who have agreed to take pay cuts when they do return to work.
According to industry estimates, there are 54,000 jobs in the sector and ANOET, the national association of bullfight organizers, said the industry generates €1.5 billion each year, rising to €4 billion when taking into account its indirect impact on the economy.
Juan José Rueda, a bull breeder from the Madrid region whose family has worked in the industry for 137 years, has been hard hit. In a normal year, his farm, Sotillo Gutiérrez, would sell 120 animals for bullfights, at a price of around €15,000 per head. This year he has not sold a single bull.
“If there are no bullfights, the people who work exclusively in the sector have no other source of income,” he said. “It’s horrible.”
Bullfighting was struggling before COVID-19. The eurozone crisis of a decade ago sent Spain into a double-dip recession, causing local subsidies — so crucial for los toros — to be slashed. Meanwhile, as unemployment soared, bullfights were one of many luxuries that Spaniards cut back on. Although the economy bounced back before coronavirus hit, the industry has never fully recovered.
A total of 3,295 bullfights were staged in 2008, according to government figures. In 2018, the most recent figures available, that number had fallen to 1,521.
Many observers attribute this decline to the industry’s own failure to adapt and establish an effective business model.
Rueda said that a lack of coordination and long-term vision in the sector means that in recent years the roles of those within it have become blurred, with organizers also working as agents for bullfighters or as breeders. This, he said, has made the industry more clubby, less diverse and lowered its quality.
“[We need] bullfights with first-class matadors and good bulls, to guarantee a quality spectacle — which today is not guaranteed,” he said.
In addition, there has been a relative lack of star quality in bullrings, limiting the appeal of this highly traditional pastime. The obvious exception has been José Tomás, a 44-year-old matador whose unique technique and willingness to risk life-threatening gorings have made him an acclaimed and controversial figure across the Spanish-speaking world. However, the enigmatic torero has frustrated many fans due to his media shyness, which in the past has seen him refuse to have his bullfights televised.
For an increasing number of Spaniards, such a lack of media exposure is a good thing. Polls show a slender majority is now in favor of banning bullfighting.
Such statistics have a political dimension. Voters on the left tend to oppose bullfighting more than those on the right. In recent years this trend has become more pronounced with the emergence of the leftist Podemos party. Last year, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias conceded that bullfighting was “an ancestral tradition,” but he added that “so is the patriarchy and machismo.”
Several town halls linked to Podemos across Spain have banned fiestas that use animals or have withdrawn funding for them, joining the regions of Catalonia and the Canary Islands, which have blanket bans on bullfighting.
With Podemos now the junior coalition partner of the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE), vocal opponents of bullfighting are now inside the government for the first time in Spain’s modern history. In practical terms, that has not meant a great deal so far — Socialist Culture Minister José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes, for example, staunchly defended bullfighting from recent criticism by Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton.
But the government is preparing an animal welfare law, at the behest of Podemos. Although it is not expected to include restrictions on bullfighting, some in the industry fear it is the shape of things to come from this leftist government.
“At a time like this, which is so difficult for everyone, they’re preparing a law for animal welfare,” said Gómez del Pilar, a bullfighter from Toledo. “Instead of worrying about all the problems caused by COVID, they’re worrying about this.”
He added: “I always say that if bullfighting wasn’t Spanish, but if it were, for example, English or American, everyone would like it. We don’t know how to make the most of it.”
The far-right Vox party seems determined to redress that supposed perception problem. Besides targeting immigration, feminism and Catalan nationalism, the party, which has become a major political force over the last 18 months, has also defended los toros as a symbol of Spanish identity.
However, Antonio Lorca from El País believes that it is voters who are leading the way on this issue, rather than parties.
“What is more relevant than Podemos is the new wave of animal rights activists who are waging an effective campaign,” Lorca said. “Society is moving further and further away from the world of bullfighting.”
For longtime animal rights campaigners, the COVID-19 crisis might seem to be a godsend in terms of its impact on the industry. But the animal rights party PACMA, which has no parliamentary representation, is wary.
“With or without COVID [bullfighting] is dying,” said party spokesperson Ana Martín.
“But now COVID has come along and the sector has seen an opportunity to try and get subsidies again.”
A number of bullfights are now being scheduled for later this summer and organizers hope that some sort of normality will return by the tail end of the season, in the early fall.
In recent weeks, the bullfighting industry has sought to make its voice heard. Demonstrators, wearing face masks, staged a series of protests outside bullrings across the country. Their short-term aim is to obtain financial support from the government in the wake of the health care crisis. But bullfighting’s longer-term ambition — to survive as a sustainable industry — appears to be dying a slow death.